01 June, 2007

Household of Edward II

In common with all royal and noble households of the Middle Ages (and indeed later), Edward II's household was absolutely enormous. It contained many hundreds of people - in the summer of 1317, 477 servants received Edward's livery (a kind of uniform), and there were also forty-six squires who weren't present. This number may not even include the lowest ranks of servant.

The marshalsea (stables) was the biggest household department, thanks to the itinerant nature of Edward's court - he moved location well over a hundred times a year and rarely spent more than a few days in any one place. Unlike in Tudor times, there was no 'London season', and Edward's favourite residence seems to have been Langley in Hertfordshire, which he had been granted in 1302 at the age of eighteen. The logistics of moving and feeding so many hundreds of people must have been taxing, and in 1317 Edward employed twenty-seven sumptermen, thirty-two palfreymen, and sixteen carters. There was one groom per horse.

Because of the wars with Scotland, Edward spent a great deal of time in the north of England, especially Yorkshire - otherwise, his peregrinations were mostly confined to the southeast of England and the Midlands, with a few trips to the west and southwest.

His household was divided into two main sections: the Chamber and the Hall. The Hall was responsible for household management, and was subdivided into numerous departments such as the napery (table linen), pantry, buttery (drinks), spicery, laundry, larder (meat and fish), chandlery (wax and candles), saucery, scullery, and ewery (water and vessels for washing, not laundry).

The head of the Hall was the Steward, always a man of knightly or noble rank. Eleven men served as Edward's Steward in the nineteen and a half years of his reign, including Richard Damory, elder brother of Edward's favourite Roger Damory, and William Montacute, whose son of the same name would become Earl of Salisbury in 1337.

By contrast, only two men are known to have served as Chamberlain in Edward's reign: John Charlton and Hugh Despenser the Younger, both of whom were also of noble rank. Despenser's appointment was confirmed in the York Parliament of October 1318; unusually, it was made "by counsel and at the request of the magnates" (Item le Roi sest accorde par consail et a la requeste de grantz qe Monsire Hugh le Despenser le fuiz demoerge son Chamberleyn).

Evidently Despenser was a popular choice, and nobody had any idea how dangerous he would become. The Chamberlain controlled access to the King - in person and written - helped with petitions, adminstered patronage, and often communicated the wishes of the King to Parliament and Council. Despenser - unlike John Charlton, who was completely anonymous in the role - used his proximity to the king as a springboard to enormous power and influence. He didn't let anyone see Edward unless he or his father was present, and after 1322, even managed to keep Queen Isabella from her husband's presence.

The Chamberlain was in charge of the knights and squires, ushers and porters, serjeants-at-arms, grooms and valets of the chamber, etc; the chamber was responsible for Edward's personal service and private apartments, and for public events and ceremonies. Unlike the Hall, there was no division and sub-division of departments within the Chamber - all decisions were made by Despenser himself.

A great source for the study of royal households are Household Ordinances - famous ones include the 1478 Black Book of the Household of Edward IV and Henry VIII's Eltham Ordinances of 1526. The earliest surviving English Household Ordinance dates from 1279, in Edward I's reign. Edward II's York Ordinance of 1318 is the second oldest (there were others which are no longer extant). The Ordinance was written - with the aim of eliminating waste and saving money in the royal household, always a political hot potato - on 6 December 1318 by the four leading officials of Edward's household:

- The Steward: Bartholomew, Lord Badlesmere (monsieur Berthelmeu de Badelesmere, seneschall)
- The Chamberlain: Hugh le Despenser the Younger (monsieur Hugh le Despenser, chamberleyn)
- The Treasurer: Roger de Northburgh, who became Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield in 1321 (sire Roger de Northborough, tresorer)
- The Controller of the Wardrobe: Gilbert de Wigton (sire Gilbert de Wyggetone, contreroullour de la garderobe).

It was signed in the presence of William Melton, the Archbishop of York (larceuesque Deuerwik), the Bishops of Ely, Norwich and Salisbury, and the Justices Henry Scrope and Henry Spigurnel. There's a much-abridged English translation of the 1318 Ordinance here; the original French text is printed in T.F. Tout's Place of the Reign of Edward II, and runs to over thirty pages.

The Ordinance details at least 363 jobs within Edward's household, including forty-seven for the Chamber, thirty-nine for the Hall and forty-two for the larder and kitchen. Some of the jobs sound amusing, such as the squire fruiterer, to provide "figs and grapes for the king's mouth" (pour la bouche le roy), the squire under-usher of the wardrobe, "who shall live in the wardrobe", a serjeant overseer of the sideboard for the hall, and a serjeant poulterer.

The sheer number of jobs, hierarchy and specialisation can be mind-boggling: Edward had, among many others, a knight chief usher of the hall, two serjeant ushers of the hall, two knights marshal of the hall, two serjeants marshal of the hall. What on earth did they all do?

There was evidently a high degree of ceremonial; one of Edward's chamber valets, Jack le Coppehouse, was paid the large sum of twenty shillings for "what he did when the king went to bed" and Sir Giles Beauchamp received five pounds "for that done at the king's chamber when he went to bed" and for his journey home. Sir Thomas Ughtred received twenty marks (thirteen pounds) for some service performed while Edward was dining. Unfortunately, the nature of these men's tasks is not revealed.

Edward had a personal bodyguard (garde corps le roi) of twenty-four archers. He also had thirty mounted serjeants-at-arms "who shall daily ride armed before the king's person while he is journeying through the country". Edward nominated four of these serjeants-at-arms to sleep just outside the door of his bedchamber, as close to the door as possible, along with the usher of the chamber.

The religious needs of the King and Queen were taken good care of. Edward II had a confessor, nine chaplains, and an almoner, while Queen Isabella had a confessor, a chaplain and her own almoner. In royal residences, Edward and Isabella had their own private chapels (one each); often, the chapels were two-storied, with their households worshipping on the lower level.

To serve the king and queen was considered to be a great honour. The higher posts were always filled by men of knightly or noble rank, or by men who later became bishops and archbishops. Isabella, in addition to her eight or more damsels, was also attended by six noble ladies-in-waiting, who came to court on a kind of rota system. Her chief lady was her husband's niece Eleanor de Clare, who had her own retinue, headed by her chamberlain John de Berkhamsted. Eleanor's husband the Younger Despenser, royal Chamberlain, also had his own chamberlain, Clement Holditch.

Thanks to Edward's generosity, Isabella had a household twice the size of previous queens' households. Close to 200 people served her, including almost a hundred men to look after her horses, twenty-six squires to protect her, her own physican and two apothecaries. The 1318 Ordinance refers to Isabella as madame la royne [the modern French word for 'queen' is reine.]

In addition to her noble ladies-in-waiting - who also included Alice Comyn, Countess of Buchan in her own right, and Ida Odingsells, whose son William Clinton became Earl of Huntingdon in 1337 - the queen had eight or more 'damsels' to attend her. Two of them were Edward II's former nurse Alice de Leygrave and her daughter Cecily. The word 'damsel' does not mean 'young woman', as many people assume; it means that the woman was unmarried, or married to a man who wasn't a knight. Obviously, Alice de Leygrave was decades older than the Queen. Isabella's damsels were usually married to men who also served in her household - for example, Joan de Falaise was married to John de Falaise, the Queen's tailor, Margaret de Villiers to Odin Bureward, a household squire (Margaret's mother Joan was another damsel, and her brother Guy was also in Isabella's service) and Joan Launge was the wife of another squire, John Launge (they were the ones granted a large income by Edward II for bringing him news of his son's birth).

Edward II's household consisted almost entirely of men. This was completely normal for a great household of the age, and doesn't imply anything about Edward not wanting women around him. Only five women are named in the 1318 Ordinance: Amice Maure, dame Gonnore, Christiane Scot, la femme Simon le Gawer and Annote la Walisshe. In 1319, Amice Maure married John Spayn, a page of Edward II's chamber; the King gave them a generous wedding gift of twenty shillings. The women were laundresses and 'bribours' - I have to admit I'm not sure what that means.

The Ordinance was keen to keep 'undesirables' away from the court, which included women who had no business being there - one part sternly orders that no household member, whatever his station, was allowed to keep his wife/woman at court, or following behind (qi null de la mesnee le roy, de quele condicioun qil soit, tenust sa femme a la court, ne nulle part dehors suyant la court).

Prostitutes following the court (dez femmez de folie vie suyantz la court) are mentioned on several occasions. The first time they were caught there, they would be removed, but if caught for a third time, they would be imprisoned for forty days (la tierce foitz soient mytz en prisone par xl iours). The Ordinance also orders Et qi null de la court ne menast ouesque luy nulle femme de fole vie ("And that no-one of the court takes with him a prosititute"). Apparently, this was a big problem with hundreds of men around.

It wasn't only prostitutes who were to be ejected, however; Edward's marshals were ordered to search the court weekly to find any people who were not meant to be there, and who hadn't sworn an oath of loyalty to the King (qi soit hors de auowerie). Such men were to be "taken and punished" (priz et puniz).

What I find especially fascinating is the emphasis on rank and status, which dominated everything, including what kind of material people wore and what they ate. Nobody below the rank of squire was entitled to eat roast meat, but had to make to do with the boiled kind. The King, Queen and any lords dining with them were entitled to "four good courses and no more", but the rest of the household to three, and 'boys' to only two. (Item ordeignez est qi le roy soit serui de iiij bouns cours saunz pluis pur lui et pur lez autrez seignours qi mangent a la sale, et a madame auxint; et qi eillours en soun hostell toutz bouns gentz soient seruiz de iij cours, et lez garsons de deux).

Different grades of cloth were used for different ranks of servant, with the higher ranks getting the more expensive materials. This also applied to the fur added to clothes in winter - ermine, miniver etc were expensive furs for the higher ranks, while lower servants wore deerskin, rabit or budge (sheepskin).

The servants received clothing, or livery, given out twice a year, as part of their wages. This was usually colour co-ordinated - for example, one summer the valets might be in striped green, the knights in blue, the yeomen in red, and so on. The effect must have been colourful and vibrant, which was heightened by the decor of Edward and Isabella's castles and palaces. In contrast to the bare stone walls and minimal furnishings usually depicted in TV programmes featuring medieval residences, the early fourteenth century royal palaces must have been incredibly vibrant, even gaudy. Edward's favourite residence of Langley had a giant mural in the Great Hall highlighted in gold and vermilion; the walls in Isabella's chamber at Windsor were painted green with gold stars, and the stonework round the windows was painted vermilion and red ochre; all the King and Queen's private chambers were decorated with murals and tapestries; and their chambers at Westminster were painted blue, red, gold, green and yellow.

Wages for Edward's servants also varied widely: the chief officers received up to twenty pounds a year; the serjeants got seven and a half pence a day; yeomen got four and a half pence a day, and valets and grooms got two pence a day.

Edward II's household was a world of men, of politicians, of backstabbers, of people on the make, and has been described by Alison Weir as "a disorderly hotbed of jealousies, intrigues and tensions." She's right, but then, how many royal courts were not like that? It's also rather unfair of Weir to claim that Edward "employed many persons of questionable probity", then only name three men who were felons - without mentioning that one of them (Gilbert Middleton) had left Edward's household and joined the Earl of Lancaster's by the time he gained notoriety in 1317 by attacking two cardinals, anyway. Edward employed five, six, seven hundred men in his household at any one time, probably several thousand over the course of his reign. In fact, it's quite remarkable that only three of them are known to have committed crimes: Middleton, Robert Lewer, who murdered his mistress's husband, and Roger Swynnerton, who was indicted for murder.

Edward II's huge and varied household...a fascinating subject! :)


Daphne said...

That is really fascinating. I wonder how the numbers compare to the number of staff the current Queen (or even the President of the US) has that keeps their households running.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Daphne. I also wonder how many staff the Queen has - that would be an interesting comparison.

Great households of the Middle Ages are such a fascinating topic. I really do find the sheer numbers of servants mind-boggling! ;)

Unknown said...

Very interesting post! 'Deuerwik' must be the old word for York, is it?

The current Queen's household is divided into five departments - the Private Secretary's Office, the Master of the Household's Department, the Privy Purse and Treasurer's Office, the Lord Chamberlain's Office, and the Royal Collection Department. More info can be found on the monarchy's official website.

Interestingly, I've heard that even today, royal servants have a very strict hierarchy and take rank (even among themselves) extremely seriously!

Carla said...

Fascinating post, Alianore! As I understand it, servants in any big household take rank very seriously, a bit like the way that people in a corporate hierarchy jealously study each other's job titles and perks. There's a line from the Brish TV series Upstairs Downstairs, which depicts a fairly modest upper-middle-class Victorian household, where a girl knocks at the door to say she is applying for the job of house-parlourmaid and the servant answering the door says, as haughtily as a duchess, "Under house-parlourmaid. I am the house-parlourmaid." In a properly posh household, of course, the housemaid(s) and parlourmaid(s) would have been separate jobs; this is a modest household that can't afford to employ both types of maid and so has hyphenated the positions together to save money. The girls wear housemaid uniform in the morning and parlourmaid uniform in the afternoon. I bet there were similar squabbles over relative rank in medieval households from the king down. (Which possibly answers what they all did all day - they bickered and played internal politics. Plus ca change... I really think the best analogy for a medieval court or manor is a modern corporation)

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, both!

Liam: the name used for York in contemp documents was Euerwik, Everwyk, etc - 'Deuerwik' is 'of York'. They didn't use the apostrophe then - 'king of England' was written 'roy/roi Dengleterre' not 'd'Angleterre' as in modern French.

Thanks for the info on the present queen's household - I must check out the site.

Carla: I'm sure you're right about the squabbling and bickering over titles, and the endless jockeying for power and trying to get yourself noticed by those in high positions. Quite fascinating to contemplate, really. I do wonder what differences having an almost entirely male household might have made over a mixed-sex one.

Kind of reminds me of the TV series The Office, where Gareth calls himself 'assistant regional manager' and Brent corrects it to 'assistant to the regional manager' - plus the quarrels that Gareth and Tim have about whether team leader 'beats' senior sales rep. Things don't change much, do they...I can just see Ed II's servants saying things like 'squire under-usher beats valet chief pantler any day, mate'. :-)

Anonymous said...

Great post. Domestic history is wonderful isn't it? Especially royal domesticity. You are right, it is hard to fathom what all the servants were doing. I struggle to do the dishes some days so I can't imagine what running a country entails! Thanks Alianore for the glimpse into a fascinating side of life.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Kate. If you're interested in this, I'd recommend C.M. Woolgar's Great Household in Late Medieval England - it's chock-full of info.

Carla said...

Yes, The Office is probably the perfect analogy. Many engineering and IT companies were almost 100% male until very recently (and still have a preponderance of men).

Melisende said...


Could the word "bribours" actually be "bribers"???

Accounting for the translation from ye olde english - or it could have been written phonetically.

For example:

Chaucer's Canterbury Tale -
"From the Freres [ie: Friars] Tale":
"And certeynly he knew of bribours mo"

Or from "The York Cycle, Play 46
Appearance of Our Lady to thomas

"[line]047 - As brothellis or bribours were belyng and bletyng:"

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Melisende,
I did wonder if it might mean 'briber', and when I googled the word 'bribour', apparently it means 'one who pilfers other people's goods'. But looking at the context, both definitions seem rather out of place: it appears in the same section as the 'lauendrers' and the women responsible for the napery. The two 'bribours' are named as William Plane and Amice Maure - it's also interesting that there's one man and one woman.

Thanks for the idea, though! :) It's been far too long since I read the Canterbury Tales and the mystery plays.

suburbanbeatnik said...

Hey there! Did you get my note?


The painting's done! (There's a link in the note.) I'm eager to hear what you think!

Kathryn Warner said...

Hey Joanne!
Yes, I saw it - will be in touch very shortly! :)

Love the painting, it's gorgeous! The costumes are so accurate - I especially love Isabella's sideless gown and the 'cauls' (not sure if that's the right name) holding her hair. And the jewelled belts and daggers - wow. Really, it's wonderful!

I laughed out loud at the comment on your site: 'omg gay'. Well, um, yeah...honestly, some people!!

Eric Avebury said...

The Royal Household employs ~ 1200 staff, see www.royal.gov.uk/output/Page4008.asp

But the functions are so different that a comparison is meaningless